Too often, TV’s biggest surprises get revealed… by the show itself, and just as the shocking episode gets underway.
In fact, several times in just the past few weeks, exciting encores that had been kept quite hush-hush were spoiled in the first minutes of the episode, well before the returning characters actually showed up. (Note: No spoilers from the past 10 days appear in this story.)
Even Marvel, the king of top-secrecy, recently tipped off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. viewers to Trip’s imminent “resurrection,” by flashing actor B.J. Britt’s name during the April 18th episode’s second scene — more than 20 minutes before the fallen agent would be spied in an alternate reality. Similarly, Criminal Minds just this week kept a blast from the past from packing as much punch as it might have, by crediting the returning guest star a full 40 minutes before his/her otherwise unexpected appearance.
And yet sometimes… sometimes, such casting secrets manage to be kept, the actor’s name purposely omitted from the opening credits and instead saved for the end of the episode or in rare cases removed all together. (See: Poor Martha’s return to The Americans, The Mentalist‘s Red John reveal or, say, Victoria Grayson’s return from the presumed-dead early on in Revenge‘s run.)
If you’ve ever been puzzled (or annoyed) by TV shows spoiling their own surprises, here is a look at why it happens, and why it doesn’t have to.
Why must an actor be listed in the opening credits? | Most simply said, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) rules require “top of show” billing for any “top of show” cast (hence the term), including those credited as “Guest Star,” “Special Guest Star” or “Special Appearance By.” “That’s a firm rule, one with many years of negotiating force behind it,” one veteran producer tells TVLine. “And it’s to be respected, as it should be.”
How does one work around that, when preserving a surprise is paramount? | First and foremost, the actor in question must agree to having their credit moved to closing crawl — as was the case with Alison Wright’s March 21 return to The Americans. “Giving away a spoiler through credits is a conscious artistic choice, the same way an author might give something away in the title of a chapter in a novel,” The Americans co-showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields explained in an email to TVLine. “We wouldn’t make that choice without our collaborators, which include the actors.
“In this case, we reached out to Alison and her reps — not specifically to get a SAG waiver, but because we wanted to collectively decide how to present that surprising scene with Martha,” they continued. “We all agreed the best experience for the audience was not to know that Martha would be in the episode until they saw her…. The choice was easy.”
Eric Kripke often made such choices as the creator and an original co-showrunner of Supernatural — starting with Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s reappearance in the Season 2 finale. “We had this feeling, [co-showrunner] Bob Singer and I, that we’ve gone to all this trouble to break a big surprise in the story, and the opening credits are going to give it away,” Kripke recalled last fall, while making the rounds promoting NBC’s Timeless.
But with the OK from Morgan (and subsequent “back-from-the-dead” actors), SAG granted the necessary, surprise-saving waiver, letting his name appear at the end instead. “It’s no small thing to say, ‘I’m going to remove my credit for something I worked hard on,'” Kripke noted. “You have to say to the actor, ‘Will you let the needs of the story and the joy people feel when they see your face be dampened by the credit? We want to blow away the audience with your return, so are you OK with foregoing that?’ And to all of those actors’ very high credit, they did understand the value of a good surprise.”
The Americans bosses echoed that sentiment, saying: “At the end of the day, these long character shows are a giant collaboration.”
Why would a producer risk letting a “top of show” credit short-change a surprise? | S.H.I.E.L.D. declined to comment on letting slip B.J. Britt’s name (a return that those who scrutinize social media might also have caught onto ahead of time), while Criminal Minds did not get back to us at press time on its May 3 crediting of you-know-who. But in defense of any show that has shown its hand in such a way, the blame can often be laid at the feet of the TV business’ fast-paced nature. “You have to have a producer who’s thinking about it, which is hard during the hustle and bustle of the season. You have to step into it and get in front of it,” a source explains.
The same is even more true for episodic press releases, which also run the risk of revealing spoilery guest casting yet sometimes never pass in front of producers let alone showrunners. So for those times an opening credit does foreshadow what’s to come in the hour, “It’s not because the producer doesn’t care,” says our source. “They’re just probably so slammed that it fell through the cracks.”
Editor’s note: The placement of credits (e.g. Morgan’s Supernatural 2×22 return) can change when a show lands on streaming services/other after-broadcast platforms.